Open-source textbooking

I began teaching at the Grand Seminary of Montreal again today — my fourth year in a row. Once again, the course is Liturgy and Sacramental Theology (albeit in French). And once again, my course is being developed as a group project for the whole class.

The concept is simple: I want to develop the best Catholic sacramental theology textbook in the entire world. Am I out of my league? You bet. I am fully aware that I could not possibly do such a thing — alone. That’s why I’m not going to even try doing it alone.

How many of us have written multiple papers for our university classes, only to never look at them again after we get our grade? Think of all those hours of labour, useful for our own education but only indirectly useful for anyone else. But what if all that intellectual labour could be harnessed into something useful for others beyond the classroom?

I’m not developing a textbook: I’m putting in place a textbook process. It’s like a blog: a blog is not a fixed text, it is an evolving series of texts united by a theme and a process.

Phase 1 was to create an outline and produce the raw data to be developed into text. This was accomplished in the creation of a course outline and initial audio.

Phase 2 was to have the raw data transformed into a more detailed breakdown of topics, with accompanying texts. This was accomplished in the development of Powerpoint slides and high-quality student course notes.

Phase 3 is where we are now. The course notes have been assembled into a common course pack, and are being edited by yours truly. The students are being given research assignments for subject areas within the course pack topics that require greater development. In other words, what at present is a more “catechetical”, conversational document is being beefed up so that someone who was, say, doing an M.A. in sacramental theology would find the text to be a useful starting point. I figure this phase will take a couple of years.

Phase 4 will come as the text is released into the field. Because it will be distributed for free, under an open license, it will be possible to avoid the looooong development cycle that a book published in the traditional manner might take. A second edition won’t take 10 years to come out; updates would be possible on a yearly basis, based on the comments of colleagues and the lived experience of teachers, students and alumni.

The way I see it, once a stable version of the document is ready, it will be the centre of a set of articles and other publications meant to explore the various topics more deeply. In a sense, I’m writing the book like it was a piece of software. The book itself is the result of the main development branch. The comments of users are the equivalent of bug reports and feature requests. Supplementary materials are the “plugins” that expand the features of the book. Finally, any articles or publications serve as developments to help build a version 2.0.

Like I said, I know I could never write a world-class university-level textbook on the subject of sacramental theology. I just don’t have the knowledge, and even if I had a doctorate in the subject my know-how would be out of date relatively quickly. But others do have that knowledge, at least in part. My hope is that, by providing a process to put those pieces together, something of supreme quality and usefulness can result, for the sake of the building of the Kingdom of God.